Delaware’s junior U.S. Senator Chris Coons reflects on the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela, recalling time he spent in South Africa in the 1980’s.
“It changed my life.” That’s how Delaware Senator Chris Coons describes the impact of the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.
Coons got an up-close look at the impact of apartheid while working with the South African Council of Churches in the 1980’s. “I went and spent three months in South Africa during the height of the state of emergency in 1987.”
“What I saw and experienced in South Africa deeply shocked me,” Coons said in a satellite interview with MSNBC from WHYY’s Wilmington studios. “I had no personal experience before then of the vicious white supremacist world view that the apartheid regime imposed in that country.”
Looking back at Mandela’s leadership while behind bars and his effort to bring the country together after being released, Coons says we’ve lost a great leader. “It’s striking to me that someone of his persistence, someone of his character, someone of his leadership ability, once released, could then show such grace and reconciliation.”
Bridging a difficult history
Coons, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, led a Congressional delegation to South Africa last year. He says the U.S. still has work to do to improve relations with the country. “We still have some difficulty bridging this history with South Africa,” Coons said. “We still have some tension that we need to work through because of what we did in the 80’s.”
That work stems from the lengthy debate in the U.S. over whether to economically boycott South Africa in protest of apartheid. After college, Coons worked for the Investment Responsibility Research Center which provided research to help those fighting for divestment.
Coons says he looked up to young leaders in Congress who were fighting to get the U.S. to take a stand against apartheid. “Young leaders in Congress like Congressman [Kweisi] Mfume and many others were real heroes to me in trying to make sure that America changed direction and got on the right side of history.”
He says there are still lessons to be learned from the way the U.S. responded to apartheid in South Africa when it comes to the complexity of foreign affairs. “The current war on terrorism or in the Cold War, there’s lots of important internal dynamics that you have to understand to get it right.”